Nouns Have Gender; People Have Sex – A Wandering into the Vagaries of Language

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Word Puzzle

Language is straight-forward, right? Wrong.

In speaking English or any language, much can happen.

Usages Changes

Some decades ago the word “sex” was used to describe the reproductive function of a human being. Now the word’s use in this way is apparently unacceptable and been replace by “gender”.

In my 1979 dictionary, “gender” is defined as “… any set of two or more categories, such as masculine, feminine and neuter into which words are divided…”; “sex is defined as “The property or quality by which organisms are  classified according to their reproductive functions”.

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg came to the Supreme Court and used “sex” in some of her written communications, she was advised by an assistant to use the more polite word, “gender”, and she took the advice. Thus it is that the language changes. “Gender” a genteelism for the word, “sex”.


A malaprop is a word or phrase used in a sentence and is a corruption of a word or phrase that should have been used. It often produces comic results. The name “malaprop” is taken from a character, Mrs. Malaprop,  in Sheridan’s play, The Rivals. She consistently uses malaprops. Here are some examples from Wikipedia taken from the play, The Rivals.

“…promise to forget this fellow – to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.”

“…she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying.”

“Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!”

Here are some malaprops that I have personally witnessed.

“New Hamster”: Why did they name a New England state after a rodent?

“Swiss Charge”: A European uses a credit card.

“Chamber of Congress”: Where legislators go to sleep.

“Agra Phobia”: Fear of farms.

“Roman Halls”: Buildings used by that famous chemical company.

Miscommunication and Misunderstanding

My engineer friend, Cynthia, grew up in rural South Carolina. When her mother announced that she was going to the bank and left for town, Cynthia was very puzzled. The bank she knew was the dirt food bank in the back yard; it was used to bury root vegetables (carrots, potatoes, et alia) for winter use.

I learned to love classical music as a young child. I listened to various composers’ compositions on my radio and read about their works in books.

It always puzzled me that the compositions of the composer, Bok, were played on the radio were never written about. But the composer Bach (pronounced Batch), about whom much was written, was never played on the radio.  And music by the composer, Show-Pan, was broadcast, but nobody wrote about him. However, the compositions of Chopin (pronounced Chop-In) were so well liked that much was written about them, but they were never played. I became disabused about these errors and discovered that there is a name for this misconception, so the practice must be common. I  no longer remember the name. Does anyone know it?

There seems to be a widespread confusion about the French, forte, and the Italian, forte. The former is pronounced “fort” and means strong as in “Cooking is her forte”; the latter is pronounced “fort tay” and means loud as in “Play this piano phrase forte”. Usually the latter’s pronunciation is used for both – the French usually leave off the last syllable of a word.

Sometimes the use of certain phrases, common with some people and not known to others, causes confusion. I had been married a short time, and a special social gathering was planned that my new family would attend. A family friend of long standing, Henrietta Smith, was also invited. I was eager to meet her because of her various accomplishments. I sought her out at the gathering, introduced myself and said, “Henrietta, your name is legend in the Fenwick family. She looked puzzled and replied, “Legend, Henrietta  Legend? You have the wrong person. I am Henrietta Smith.” Aunt Elsie, who was within listening distance, laughed quietly into her handkerchief.


As a child I was given lessons in Catechism. After the lesson each week the homework required us to memorize portions of the book. We were tested on this the following week. I took this task very seriously, but when asked to recite a portion, I delivered a paraphrase of the prose. This was unacceptable. I was so distraught by this rejection that I never again attended the class. When I got older I began to understand that some examples of language must be remembered exactly or the meaning of the text becomes corrupted.

I understand that in a Synagogue all copies of the Pentateuch have to be written exactly like the original. Hebrew comes in voweled and unvoweled form, and the copies of the Pentateuch must use the voweled form.

When I was teaching mathematics, I defined abstraction as “the act of separating an inherent quality from an object and considering the quality apart from the object”: for instance, roundness, sweetness, usefulness, redness … I told the students that the definition would be on the next examination. One student duly regurgitated the definition except “apart” was written “a part”. This show as complete lack of understanding of the concept.

Newly Coined Words and Phrases

Infotainment: Communication that both conveys information and entertainment. I believe it was coined by Bobby Likis, the automobile expert.

Infomercial: A commercial disguised as information.

To put his feet to the fire: The only reference I can think of for this currant phrase is the torture that Cortez put to Huatamok, the nephew and heir to the throne of Tenochtitlan, the old name for Mexico City.

Infracaniphile: This is not in common usage, but it should be. A friend coined this word because she thought there was a need for it. Can any of you wordsmiths discern its meaning?

Street Language

A friend, some of whose life experiences were different than mine, taught me some street language. I lived long enough to have it serve me. I was walking one night in Philadelphia to hear my son perform in a café. I felt comfortable because the streets were fairly crowded with shoppers and people seeking evening entertainment, but I became aware that there was a man following me.

I was not frightened; I continued walking. But as I rounded a corner, suddenly the only people on the street were the stalker and me.

I became suddenly annoyed, even a bit angry, because I knew he was behind me but I was not in a position to see what he might possibly do. With a sudden thought of what I should do, I wheeled around, stood my ground and said to him in a firm voice, “What’s happenin’?” He gave the expected response: “Nothin’ happenin’,” turned around and walked away.

Ellen Hetland Fenwick

Note: You might also enjoy How Do You Pronounce The?

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